Dan Rather, Still Fighting

The former CBS News anchor opens up about Les Moonves, the state of TV news, and Trump’s war on the press.

Photo: Stewart Volland
Photo: Stewart Volland

Ask Dan Rather for his reaction to the Mueller Report and he does not hold back. “What’s revealed is absolutely damning,” the former CBS News correspondent and anchor says, his familiar baritone slightly faded but still plenty strong in his 87th year of his life. “There’s never been anything like it in the history of the American presidency.” It’s a blunt assessment, but for anyone familiar with Rather’s six-decade career as a journalist, the candor is hardly a surprise. The Texas-born newsman has rarely held his tongue when confronting power, whether he was taking on Richard Nixon during Watergate or firing back at his CBS bosses when they forced him off the network following the scandal that erupted over his reporting on George W. Bush’s National Guard record. The election of Donald Trump was not going to bring out the diplomat in Dan Rather.

These days, of course, Rather doesn’t have the platform of a nightly network newscast from which to seek truth and offer his analysis. He still has a regular paid journalism gig, hosting the music-centric celebrity Q&A show The Big Interview on Mark Cuban’s AXS TV. But for serious issues, Rather now mainly flexes his muckraking muscles by going on other journalist’s programs (he’s a regular visitor to The Rachel Maddow Show) or by sounding off on Twitter and through his very popular Facebook page, which has just under 2.8 million followers. Still, one place he hasn’t been welcomed is CBS News. In 2005, the controversy over the authenticity of documents used in a 2004 Rather-helmed 60 Minutes II segment about Bush ended his 24-year run as anchor of The CBS Evening News and then led to him leaving the network altogether a year later. Any possibility of Rather making guest visits to CBS News broadcasts likely died after he unsuccessfully sued the network over the whole incident, which generated enough messy drama to quite literally fill a movie (2015’s Truth, starring Robert Redford as Rather).

Today, Rather says that whole chapter is “so far behind me, I don’t even see it in the rear-view mirror anymore,” even with the recent ouster of disgraced former CBS chief Leslie Moonves, the Eye executive ultimately responsible for Rather’s downfall. That’s not to say he doesn’t still have strong opinions over what happened. Over the course of an hour-long interview in mid-April, Rather also served up the backstories of his ill-fated partnership with Connie Chung and a certain short-lived catchphrase, gave his take on the current state of network and cable TV journalism (he’s not a fan of Fox News), and detailed how right-wing attacks on his CBS News tenure evolved into today’s White House war on “fake news.”

You worked in the network news business for decades. I’m wondering what your TV news diet is like now in the internet age. What do you take in on a regular basis?
I am almost an addicted TV news watcher. You name it, I watch it. And yes, that includes making myself acquainted with what Fox News puts out. I’m semi-regular with the morning news programs, but pretty regular with the three mainstream, traditional media evening newscasts. I’ll watch NBC one night and maybe watch ABC on recording, and then the next night I’ll watch CBS and NBC. I know the dangers by mentioning one or two programs, I run the risk of making somebody else angry — but yes, I’m a regular with Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon, Chris Matthews. I catch Jake Tapper in the late afternoon, whenever I can. You run down the list of news programs, and it’s a rare week when I won’t watch them at least once.

Do you think the three network newscasts resemble what you did back when you were anchoring? They seem like very different beasts to me.
Yes, there is some vague similarity. First of all, it’s still a half-hour broadcast. The pace is much faster. But — and I’m not looking for a headline here — I have tremendous respect for all three of the traditional newscasts. I like all three anchors. I don’t like the word “performer,” but they’re accomplished deliverers of the news. I think all three of them ache to do a good job.

What none of the so-called Big Three do is, there’s not nearly enough international coverage, what we used to call “foreign” news. At the very time we need more, better, really high-quality, integrity-filled international news coverage, we get very little. Nor do we get as much deep-digging investigative reporting. I will say that Rachel Maddow and her staff do an incredible job of researching, and they do some investigating — but not enough international news coverage. And there’s not nearly enough of covering what I’d call the underside of society, the Dickensian side of society. Not enough coverage of the hungry, the homeless, the heartbroken, the helpless, and the voiceless. Having said that, it’s also important for me to say: Maybe I didn’t do a very good job of any of this when I was anchor and managing editor of the Evening News.

Part of the problem is the infrastructure at the networks is much different than it was back you were anchor. The same resources aren’t devoted to putting reporters all over the world.
None of the three traditional network news organizations are even a shadow of what they were for most of my time in the anchor chair. For a good deal of my time — don’t hold me to these exact figures — we had something like 25 bureaus and sub-bureaus overseas. At one time we had 60, maybe 65 CBS News correspondents. But these organizations now are only a shell of what they were.

The same even applies to cable news. CNN has somewhat of a broader footprint than broadcast because they’re an international network, but it’s nothing like what it was in the 1980s and ’90s. They’ve also made a lot of cutbacks.
Well, that’s true. They actually have people based overseas, but you don’t see much of that reporting on the air, at least not on the domestic channel. They have an international channel in which they do a somewhat better job of it. But please don’t make that read that I’m all over CNN — I respect CNN. They do a rather remarkable job with their far-flung resources.

You’re a regular guest on Rachel Maddow’s show. I sometimes see some media reporters and pundits making comparisons with the prime-time anchors on Fox News, that they’re all partisans. What’s your take?
This is false equivalency. By any reasonable analysis, Fox News is something new in the American experience. This is a straight-out propaganda outlet for the president who’s in the White House. And it’s as close as we’ve ever had to an authoritarian regime’s propaganda voice. I’m talking specifically about their prime time. To try to strike any equivalency between Maddow and that is frankly not worth discussing. Maddow’s opening 25- or 30-minute beginning — the combination of research and really good writing — is good journalism. Now, does it have a point of view? Yes, it has a point of view. But again, I don’t think there’s any equivalency between what Maddow does at nine o’clock Eastern Time and what Fox does between 7 and 11 p.m.

You know a little something about being demonized by the right. Conservatives have been bashing you since your coverage of the Zapruder film and the Nixon White House. There was the whole “Rather Biased” meme before we called them memes. To me, it seems like you were a test case in an effort to undermine trust in media, the patient zero of what’s morphed into Trump’s “fake news” strategy. Do you think what was done to you was part of a concerted effort to discredit what they like to call the “liberal” media?
The short answer is yes. By any objective reading of the record, that’s true. Look, it has been my destiny — my luck, if you want to call it that — that I’ve been on point on some very controversial stories, beginning with the very first major assignment I had to cover, the civil-rights movement in the early 1960s, and the Vietnam War, what gets more controversial than that? I was, for a while, point on that. And when we had the widespread criminal conspiracy led by a president himself, what we call in shorthand “Watergate,” I was point again on that. When you rather consistently cover very controversial stories, not everybody is going to love you. You’re out there, you do the best you can, you’re bound to make some mistakes — but you’re doing the best you can.

Because I worked at CBS News, which was the gold standard of the business for a very long time, you can say I paid the price. But I did so happily. You know, I have a record. The record is now getting a little long since, with God’s grace, I’ve lived a long time. But if you’re going to cover controversial stories and try to do it [in a] play-no-favors, pull-no-punches way, then you’re going to have to face the furnace and take the heat. And frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Anybody who knows me and anybody who looks at the record knows that I may or may not succeed, but I try very hard not to be right wing, not to be left wing, not to be chicken wing. I don’t want to be preachy about this, but your goal as a correspondent is get to the truth — or as close to the truth as is humanly possible — and tell it. And that’s what I tried to do. By doing that, a lot of people, for their own partisan political and/or ideological purposes, made me, among other people, a target. But I have no complaints. You come to realize it goes with the territory.

It’s become more insidious than just skewing one reporter’s reputation now, right? You now have the president of the United States declaring, on a regular basis, that the New York Times and CNN are enemies of the people. That’s scarier than a “Rather Biased” bumper sticker.
Absolutely. Much more dangerous. It’s one reason that I say, and I say it because I believe it: It’s a particularly dangerous and perilous time for the country, because you have a president of the United States with clearly authoritarian leanings who has tried to indict the whole of the press, not just individuals. It does impact individuals, but his basic attack is on the whole idea of a free and independent press. If that’s not dangerous and perilous to a system of government such as ours, I don’t know what is.

When you saw Leslie Moonves depart CBS last year, I’m wondering how you reacted. He’s the person who ultimately ended your CBS News career.
For almost all of the time that Moonves head[ed] the whole network, I got along with him very well. I didn’t know him particularly well, but I knew more than enough to like him. And so far as I could make out, he liked me. Until we got to the point of the Bush story, my relationship with Moonves was just fine. In fact, I would say, somewhat better than that.

We don’t need to go through the whole history of that time, but the tradition of CBS News was that the network stood behind its reporters. They stood behind Murrow, time after time, when people tried to get him out of the job. They stood behind me and others during the civil-rights time, during the Vietnam War, and especially during Watergate, when there was tremendous pressure to remove me from CBS as White House correspondent. I mean, the whole history of the place was you stood by your reporters. So I was surprised and disappointed when Moonves very quickly caved to pressure on a story, which, the basic story was correct. We made mistakes in getting to the process of getting to the truth, yes. But we got to the truth.

A year after stepping down from the Evening News, you left the network completely in 2006.
I believed until the last second that some way would be found for me to stay there. Obviously it was going to be in a diminished, smaller role, but I couldn’t imagine that they were gonna let me go. I was surprised that Moonves would just let me go. I was stunned by what followed. He became part of an effort to tarnish my CBS record, to obliterate that I was even there, almost literally like they used to in the Kremlin in the Stalin days. So I was surprised they let me go, but I was really stunned by the effort to slur my reputation.

Why do you think he did it?
To this day, I don’t fully understand why Les would have been a part of that. Those who knew him well tell me — without excusing him — that he had tremendous pressure above him from Sumner Redstone, who had his own political desires to help the corporation and thought Republicans would be better [for CBS and Viacom]. Republicans put the pressure on me, so therefore, Moonves caved to the pressure from above. And there were some people within CBS News who, for their own purposes — I think jealousy, envy, maybe well-founded in their own minds — encouraged him. That’s what I hear from people who know Moonves a lot better than I did.

I never wished Les ill will. But when he became part of the effort to tarnish my reputation — obliterate the reputation, just wipe it out — I was faced with a fight-or-flight situation, and I chose to fight. And while in the end I lost the court case on appeal, some things are worth fighting for, even if you lose. Whatever anybody thinks of my record at CBS News, I earned that record. And yes, I’m quite proud of it. I don’t pretend I did it perfectly, but no one can say I didn’t give it everything I had.

Despite all that, there’s no sense of Schadenfreude that Moonves left in disgrace?
No, no. Widely believed it may be, but truly there’s not. I didn’t have any of those feelings. One thing to keep in mind: It’s been a long time now since I left CBS News. I recognize the thrust of your question, but when he had to go and was fired from CBS, I didn’t have any of those feelings. It’s in my rearview mirror. It’s so far behind me, I don’t even see it in the rearview mirror anymore. So I can truly say I didn’t have any of those feelings at all. Period.

I want to go back to the early 2000s. CNN made a really big play to woo you from CBS. They offered you a lot of money and an hour-long newscast. You don’t seem like someone who lives life with a lot of regrets, but considering what was to come a few years later at CBS, do you ever think about what your career might have been like had you took the CNN deal?
Short answer is yes. I’m not very much for contemplating the road not taken, but in this case, from time to time, I do think about it. I think this is public knowledge, but they offered me a ten-year, no-cut contract at $6.5 million a year. It was at least $6 million. At that age and stage, a ten-year, no-cut contract at that level, with CNN having matured — it was tempting. Very, very tempting. And I did say to CBS, “Look, I have to think seriously about going.” They made it clear right away that I would have to lay out a year before I could go to CNN. They said they wanted to keep me, but if my decision was to go to CNN, I’d have to be prepared to stay off the air for a year.

I thought about it. But in the final analysis, I just couldn’t see myself leaving CBS News. You know, I probably have the [CBS] Eye tattooed somewhere on my butt, even to this day. Only my wife could attest to that, but nonetheless. [Laughs.] But having acknowledged to you that I do from time to time think about what life would be like, I quickly get it out of my mind because life’s not like that. I have no idea what might have happened if I had gone to CNN at that time. But I was happy at CBS News. And I really believed in the traditions and history and mystique of CBS News. It became such an integral part of myself that if CNN had offered me twice the money — and mind you, it was a very generous offer — in the end, I doubt I would’ve been able to go.

Since I’m asking you about the CBS News days, I’ve always been curious about your relationship with Connie Chung. You were famously partnered with her on the CBS Evening News for a few years back in the 1990s, and it didn’t really work out. She was pretty upset when she was forced off the broadcast. What’s the status of your relationship with her? Has it been mended?
I liked Connie Chung the first day she came to CBS News. I remember when she came to the Washington bureau. I didn’t think the idea of having a double anchor was a good idea. It wasn’t anything personal with Connie; I just didn’t think it worked.

How did she end up anchoring with you?
As a result of [CBS] dropping NFL football, a lot of stations changed their affiliation. Maybe some of it was because of me, but we had a dip in the ratings. More than a dip. The argument put to me was, “Look, we think that by putting a woman on, it will be more compatible with the local news,” because almost every local news station has a male and female anchor. Their argument was it might improve our demographics and so forth. I had a contract that read that I was to be consulted about any changes of anchor, but I did not have veto power. I said, “I don’t think this will work, but Connie’s a good person,” and so they tried it. For a lot of different reasons, it just never worked. I never felt badly about Connie, and so far as I know, she never felt badly about me. But our ratings went down rather than up, in my recollection. There eventually came a time when the network made a decision: “Look, we gotta go back to one or the other,” and the decision was made to stick with me. That’s pretty much the end of that story.

What’s the relationship like with her now? Have you talked to her recently?
I have. Last time I saw her, maybe a year and a half, two years ago, she was on the train going to Baltimore. I’ve seen her from time to time, and get along with her just fine.

Another thing I’ve always been curious about is when you began signing off with the word “courage.” What was the story behind that?
Well fortunately, it’s a short story. My father’s favorite word was “courage.” My mother’s favorite word was “meadow.” You’re not gonna sign off any broadcast with “meadow” and expect to stay on the air. [Laughs.] From time to time on the Evening News, we came up with idea [for sign-offs]. One of them was, “And that’s part of our world tonight. Dan Rather reporting,” which was sort of a committee decision. Somebody said, “You know, Walter [Cronkite’s] sign-off was, ‘And that’s the way it is,’ and so I said, not entirely joking, “Maybe my sign off should be, ‘That’s some of the way it is.’” Well, that went nowhere. But “courage” meant something very personal to me, not that I’ve always had it. I haven’t. Some would say I’ve never had it. But it was personal to me because it was my father’s favorite word, and I was told it was his father’s favorite word.

So the time came, and I thought, You know, ‘courage’ is a good, strong word. I’m gonna try it. Fair to say, a lot of stuff hit the fan when I did so. The head of the news division and all of those vice-presidents, including vice-presidents in charge of vice-presidents, they came back down on me like a ton: “What the hell could you be thinking?” Corporate side didn’t like it, and it’s fair to say that nobody in the upper echelons liked it. I stuck with it for a week, maybe as long as ten days. But it finally came down to the point where I was told, “Either ‘courage’ goes or you go.” So “courage” went. When it came time to sign off in 2004, with nothing to lose, I used it in my final broadcast.

It sure made sense at that point.
And I still like it.

Your show on AXS TV, The Big Interview, just started its seventh season. Before that, you spent something like four decades at CBS News, going one-on-one with just about everyone. Is there anyone left on your interview bucket list?
You bet. I have a long list, but I’ll just give you a few names, in no particular order. I’d love to do Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Quincy Jones, Stevie Nicks, Tim McGraw, Oprah. Elton John, who I did interview some years ago but I’d love to get him back on. Beyoncé, I’d go to hell and back to interview her.

I don’t want to get too maudlin, but is there a way you would summarize your legacy? A way that you want people to remember you?
Uh, no. Truthfully, I don’t think about legacy. I can be dumb as a fence post, but at least I’m smart enough to know that nobody who works in television is gonna have much of any of a “legacy,” quote unquote. Television, although those of us who work in it don’t want to think so, it’s ephemeral. If you find a cure for polio or cancer, you’re gonna have a legacy. If you’re a working reporter who gets lucky enough to anchor for a while, I don’t think you should think in terms of legacy. I don’t expect anyone will little note nor certainly long remember anything that I’ve done. I’d love to be remembered as somebody who cared about God, country, family, and worked hard. But you look at the record of television, in the whole history of electronic journalism, there’s a very, very short list of people who are remembered more than five or six years after they go off the air. The founding saint of electronic journalism is Ed Murrow — terrific in every category. Here we are in the second decade of the 21st century, and I lament this, but there are very few people who even know who he is. So, I don’t get up in the morning thinking about legacy. When my feet hit the floor in the morning, I’m thinking, “Where’s the story, and how do I get to it?” I’m not thinking about legacy. [Pauses.] I need to go.

Thank you so much, Mr. Rather.
Well, I thank you very much. I appreciate your time, I appreciate your interest. If you have some time, drop around, we’ll have a cup of coffee. In the meantime, if you need bail money, call me.

Dan Rather, Still Fighting